Growing up, I was easily impressed by talent. I had so many crushes on female performers as a preteen and beyond. I mean, I loved Laurel & Hardy and the Three Stooges, but I’d get starry eyed watching Mary Tyler Moore or Jane Curtin. Funny ladies definitely helped fuel my growing desire to write comedy. The culmination of my wayward crushes occurred in my 16th year watching Carol Burnett.
Look, I’m sorry “The Mummy” tanked…oh, who am I kidding, I’m not. I was angry about it since they announced it and the start of this whole Universal Monster “Dark Universe.” I’ve been mad about this stuff since “Van Helsing” came out. I grew up loving the monster movies of Universal Studios. From “Frankenstein” right up to “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (if you don’t know it’s one of the most solid Universal horror movies done in the Forties, I pity you), the movies were scary, funny, thrilling, and hokey. Sure, continuity is off, this was back before “franchises” existed and each movie kinda started from scratch, but they were fun and not calculated. Even the first time the idea of two monsters existing in the same universe occurred (“Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman”), it started off a joke idea that people grew to like.
But it was a train wreck, who’s only acknowledgment of previous Universal monster movies was the vague notion that werewolves can kill vampires, which was first implied at the conclusion of “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein.”
Anyway, the film got me angry. So angry, I wrote the sequel to the last Universal monster movie they SHOULD HAVE done. I brought it into modern times, I managed to explain why we haven’t heard from the monster is decades, and I folded in every bit of folklore from the movies I could PLUS give it a sense of humor about itself. It was a tale of thrills, revenge and villainy. Naturally, as soon as I started showing it around, Universal started floating the idea of a “Dark Universe” to compete with Marvel movies or DC.
Sure, I tried to do a rewrite, and convert the monsters into the more public domain versions of themselves, but the same reaction was had. Apparently you can’t pitch a movie called “Island of Frankenstein” without triggering those connections. Oh, well. I’m very happy with it and I love the big finale. So, I park it here, on my website. Enjoy.
I have a new comedy bit posted over at The Big Jewel; Internet Ratings of Escape Rooms.
As August 1991 drew to a close, things were still tumbling around. My Hollywood connection, Kevin, wanted a progress report on the re-write of “Jingle Bell Blues” (the old title of the now-former Pee-Wee Herman script) as he had a pitch meeting with William Morris coming up. He also wanted to pitch a cable comedy featuring comedy troupes (like Style Without Substance), which came out of that comedy festival he attended with me a year earlier. He wanted me to put together a list of groups for him.
or Skit Happens
During my time with Olympia Dukasis' Whole Theater, I managed to impress Ms. Dukasis with my comedy material. Here's how I know:
At this time, 1988, NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” had a mini-tradition of asking Oscar nominees for best supporting actor to host the show. And they asked Ms. Dukakis. Good for her. But then the weirdest thing happened. Tom Gilpin called me aside after one of our rehearsals and asked me if I wanted to meet with Olympia Dukakis. Sure?
Or Skit Happens
I recounted some of this in an earlier post, but I wanted to revisit the story in line with my sketch writing.
I was always joining writing groups to present my little comedy skits. I usually got good reactions from them. After presenting a sketch in a group called Pen-to-Stage (known more for one act and full-length plays), one of the actresses approached me and mentioned that she was working with a comedy troupe. She felt they really needed some strong material and was wondering if she could show some of my stuff to the troupe. Of course. As it turned out, the troupe did like my material and was curious to meet me and see what else I had. Okay, it was in New Jersey, but my writing had impressed someone outside my little circle of co-writers. I headed out to Montclair, NJ...
Mid-August 1991, word comes in from Hollywood. Kevin wants to know how the “Magic” script is coming. Again. Once that’s out of the way, he remembers to tell me that “Kringle” is being sent to the William Morris Agency, as well as a couple of other places. But mostly he wants the “Magic” script.
Bill, from “Party” calls to assign me some bits to write. I note in my log that this is a good sign because the writer meetings have generally been without form. I write that some “kid” on the staff seems to have made an impression on people and might wind up as an on-screen character (“Oh, well.”)
or Skit Happens
We had to write a book report on it (naturally) but something in me was stirred. I couldn't just write the same old type of book report. I actually decided I was going to honor the book by mimicking it. I was going to use the style and logic of the book to make my point. What that point was is long forgotten, but I do remember one line that summed up the style of that report: "Yes, Captain John Yossarian would fight the army, but he couldn't expect beat it, after all, if the whole Nazi army couldn't, how could he?" Snappy, right?
I am a comedy nerd. Granted, I haven't kept up with some of the latest stuff as I am also a prude. There's so much more effort put into to being "outrageous" or "gross" or "scatological" instead of just, you know, funny. I'm old fashion that way. However, my failings include leaning too far into clever over funny. Anyway, I loved comedy enough that I decided I wanted to do it. It was a matter of getting up the nerve.
What finally gave me the nerve to try it "out loud," so to speak, was an assignment in my High School English class. My teacher, Mr. Dowling, included the book "Catch-22" as part of the class curriculum. Holy mackerel! That was some amazing book. Deep, meaningful and funny as all get out. Absurdist and anti-establishment. And it seem to channel the comedy stylings of the Marx Brothers or Abbott & Costello like I'd never seen before and certainly not in school. This was a real eye-opener.
Later, in college I had this awful English teacher. He handed out a stupid writing assignment, to research and write about one subject from a list of two dozen of the driest topics ever which he handed out. The affect of rain on Peru agriculture?* The best selling soap in the country?* Ugh! This was not something I desired to do. I hated research. I glumly scanned the list. Then something leapt out at me. One of the topics was discussing the future of Ocean Picture Theaters. Ocean Picture Theaters. Yes, yes, it was a typo, but it was a typo I was going to run with! I handed in my paper as a CEO's report to his shareholders about the difficulties of the Ocean Picture Theater business, essentially Drive-Ins but for boats and sharks. My mark was okay, but he was forced to concede that I had taken full advantage of his "error." Ha! Never the rebel, I was really concerned that I had pushed my luck with this one.
So I've been in an out of the "comedy biz" (as no one calls it) for years. I've written articles, screenplays, stage plays, TV pilots and specs. And sketches, so many sketches.
These days on the internet there are self-appointed "comedy police" who patrol the 'net looking to trip up comics by pointing out that they stole a joke, premise, bit or adverb from another comic. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't. There's comedy zeitgeist, I believe, where certain concepts and ideas just seem to emerge and become apparent to writers. There is parallel thinking all over the place. There's also a ton of easy punch lines go after. There are billions of people on the planet, you just know a couple of them are going to come up with the same idea. It's happened to me a couple of times.
I was submitting material to two different radio outlets for a time, if one rejected it, I still had a chance the other might accept.
I wrote a game show sketch (unique, right?). The first place passed on it. The second company, however, gave me a maybe. He liked it well enough, but wasn't sure. He essentially said, "We'll see." This is one of those sketches I fell in love with as soon as I wrote it; a silly idea followed through to a logical conclusion, staying true to the game show premise but having fun with it. It wasn't a string of joke-jokes, but a mix of jokes, concepts and a rhythm of language and pace that carried it along. The game show was called "Homonyms!". Needless to say, not long after I submitted the skit to the radio people, "30 Rock" introduced its new game show "Homonyms." It was a 30 second black out/cut away bit from the main plot, but still. It was meaner than my version and the logic was reversed from my bit; where their contestant could never be able to win, my contestants seem to struggle to correctly respond to what was an obviously easy set up.
I wrote to the radio producer and said "See, this could have been yours!" But I held the skit in my back pocket. After all, "30 Rock" used it as a 30 second black out sketch, what's the harm, right? Who's gonna remember that?
Apparently the writers at "30 Rock" remembered that. A few weeks later they did a call back to the joke when "NBC" franchised the game show to Iran. And...my skit was dead.
So, remember, it's not even a matter of who thinks of it first these days. It's about who has the bigger audience for the bit. But, yeah, if All Star Radio had done "Homonyms" when I first submitted it, I would still be an unknown, but I'd be an unknown with bragging rights!
*not actual topics, but you get the idea...
So, Warner Brothers liked my script, but it was decided to pass the script directly to Paul “Pee-Wee” Ruebens, who promptly got arrested in a Florida porn theater. From the time the story first broke on a Friday night (as my family & I were packing for a weekend getaway) until that Sunday night (when we came home), the details trickled out and they were not happiness-inducing.
Yeah, after posting this, other thoughts came to me and now it's turning into a limited edition series. We'll see how it goes...
Dan vs. the Rock
Ah, the writer’s life, sitting alone in front of a blank piece of paper (virtual or otherwise), allowing your imagination to run free and gather the thoughts and impulses needed to generate prose, to create a story, to come up with a sketch. Writing isn’t always easy, but sometimes an idea comes to you in a flash, and you are merely transcribing inspiration. You can fall into the zone as you write, where time and effort fall away like a flaky biscuit. I treasure those times. And after the muse has come and gone, you have something tangible to hold; a short story, an article, a comedy skit. Not just any comedy skit, the comedy skit; the one that would get me noticed!
Freelance writer, still hacking away.